Archive for Wednesday, November 7, 2001

A little too sleight of hand

November 7, 2001

Playwright and filmmaker David Mamet has a soft spot for crooks. From

"Glengarry Glen Ross" (about ethically bankrupt real estate salesmen)

to "The Spanish Prisoner" (about corporate scam artists), the writer

has explored confidence games with voyeuristic glee that often rubs

off on a viewer. His eighth film "Heist" in some ways explains and

demonstrates this fascination, because Mamet hoodwinks an audience

the way his characters rob their victims. This time around, the

director is reminiscent of an acquaintance who charms his host to no

end while pilfering him. Mamet retreads much of his earlier work, but

at least it's still entertaining.

Gene Hackman ("Heartbreakers") stars as Joe Moore, an aging thief

whose ability to outsmart security systems is prodigious. He and his

partners - Bobby (Delroy Lindo), Fran (Mamet's wife and default

female lead Rebecca Pidgeon) and Pinky (Mamet regular Ricky Jay) -

use guns and explosives as in more conventional thrillers. What makes

this crew special is that Joe and his cohorts use psychological tools

as often as they do gadgets. When a component of their plan goes

awry, Joe can think of a couple clever remarks that help him escape

with the goods.

His money management skills don't follow suit. When Joe wants to

retire after being captured on a security camera, he can't because

his fence, Bergman (the reliably skuzzy Danny DeVito) stiffs him and

won't pay Joe and his cohorts until they do another heist with

Bergman's nephew Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell). Jimmy is a rather

obnoxious lad who imagines himself to be a good deal slicker than he

actually is. He's also a hothead, making the more levelheaded and

methodical Joe resent his intrusion even more. As a result, the

thieves wind up spending as much time casing each other as they do

airports and jewelry stores.

Most of the fun to be had during "Heist" comes from watching Hackman

and his co-stars trying to outwit one another and often the audience

in the process. As "Heist" progresses, the dynamics behind the film

often shift dramatically. Mamet regularly fools a viewer into

thinking that one thing is happening and then reveals something

different entirely. Many of these twists, which recall "House of

Games" and "The Spanish Prisoner," are sufficiently slippery, but

toward the end a sort of "crying wolf" quality emerges. After a while

we begin to expect that Hackman or DeVito has a previously

undiscussed backup plan - the recurrence of these incidents dilutes

the tension.

Mamet often pushes "Heist" toward contrivance in order to achieve its

desired jolt. An elaborate sequence of play acting in a bar later

turns out to be of use later in the film, but one wonders if any

successful thief would go to such trouble to fool someone who might

not be at work on the day of the heist.

For the most part, Mamet does get a decent workout from the cast.

Hackman is typically commanding and comes across with remarkable

sympathy for a career criminal. DeVito relishes a rare chance to play

menacing, and Lindo gets a chance to demonstrate acting chops he

hasn't been able to show in recent duds like "The One." As with some

of his previous flicks, Pidgeon comes off as a bit of a liability.

While she was likable in "State and Main," here she seems baffling.

True, she is supposed to be a mystery woman (although she's Joe's

much-younger wife, her toying with Jimmy's heart may actually be

genuine), but there isn't enough to her personality to keep her

activities interesting. Mamet's female characters are often sketchy

(think Pidgeon's love interest in "The Spanish Prisoner"), so it's

hard to know whether to blame the writer or the actress.

Because Mamet deliberately keeps us at arms length with these people

and their actual thoughts, "Heist" remains diverting but lacks some

of the power of his better work. For example, it helped to know that

Jack Lemmon in "Glengarry Glen Ross" had a sick daughter, so his

character's moral decay seemed all the more alarming. "Heist" still

manages to deliver the requisite snappy Mamet lines. Joe declares

about Fran, "She can talk her way out of a sunburn," and Lindo's

anecdote about a cop and a Bible is hysterical. Mamet can be an

engaging cinematic con artist, but it's a lot more enjoyable to watch

him making his money the old fashioned way: earning it.

"Heist" is rated R.

**1/2

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